SAGAMORE HILLS — When Jim and Lisa White’s daughter Faith was born nearly a decade ago, Jim wanted to devote as much time as he could to her.
So the family moved to Central America last year.
"Once Faith was born, I was trying to find a way to reach financial independence so I wouldn’t have to work anymore and would be able to be with her longer," said Jim.
The family was recently on the HGTV series "House Hunters International," which detailed how they found their home in Panama. The episode can be viewed by going to YouTube and searching "House Hunters" and "Boquete."
On the show, Lisa said Jim was the driving force in making the move.
"He made me keep looking at these financial numbers and finally I said, ‘OK, let’s give it a try," said Lisa.
"I said that it would be an adventure and it would be really scary, but we just have to do it," said Faith, also on the show. "We don’t know until we try."
Jim told the News Leader he and Lisa moved to the township in late 2008 and he worked in IT at a company in Brecksville.
"It was actually a great company to work for, but once Faith was born in [June] 2010, I kind of didn’t like being there anymore," he said by phone Wednesday. "It wasn’t the actual place itself. It was more just having to be at work and not being able to be with her."
So he started researching how to retire early, something he started chronicling on his informational blog at https://www.routetoretire.com/ in 2015. Jim said that while their lives were not austere, they did learn to cut less important expenses.
But as time went on, he began to feel impatient over how long it was taking.
"That’s when the idea of moving to a low-cost place came up," said Jim.
They looked at places within the United States and then began expanding outward.
"Panama just stuck out because it seemed like a much easier transition because there’s a lot of U.S. ties that make things a little easier," said Jim.
He said he and Lisa visited Panama in 2017 and then Lisa gave her approval.
By 2018, Lisa had left her job at a non-profit to become a "stay-at-home mom." But despite the family reaching $1 million in net worth by early 2017, Jim kept working until the end of 2018 to add more. Then he "retired" at age 43 after 20 years at his job.
As they were making plans to make the move, the possibility of television stardom arose. The family has not had cable since 2010, partly to save money but also as a lifestyle choice, but friends suggested they try to get on the show.
"I emailed them and said, ‘Hey, this is our game plan," said Jim.
Six months later, they got a response. The White’s moved to Panama in August 2019 and moved into their home the following month.
They live just outside the town of Boquete in west Panama, not too far from the border with Costa Rica. Jim said Boquete includes an expatriate community of mostly Americans and Canadians and some Europeans. Lisa said they have been made to feel welcome.
"The expats and Panamanians, the locals here, are some of the friendliest people I think we’ve ever met," said Lisa. "They really try to help you adjust. The language barrier that we have, we don’t speak Spanish, if you’re trying to figure something out, everybody will go out of their way to help you get adjusted and figure out what you need. It’s a beautiful community. It’s just hard to be away from family and friends."
Jim estimated that the family currently averages about $3,500 a month in expenses. This includes rent, utilities, food, even vacations, but not a car. Because they live just a 10-minute walk to town, they do not currently own one.
"We’re living a more than comfortable lifestyle, I’d say," said Jim.
Rent of their roughly 1,600-square-foot home is more than $1,000 a month.
"There’s places around here where you can easily get a nice 2-bedroom house to rent for 500 bucks a month," said Jim. "But for us, there were reasons to be here. We spend a little more because we like the amenities, the gated community, the security."
Jim said their primary source of income is from his and Lisa’s 401(k) plans. They also still own a rental property in Stow and Jim’s blog, which includes advertising, provides a little revenue.
Faith, who attended Northfield Elementary School, is homeschooled because the White’s have not yet applied for residency in Panama, something that would cost an estimated $7,500.
"We want to make sure this is the place for us before we drop the money," said Jim.
Because of this, they are required to leave the country for 30 days every six months, making putting Faith into school impractical for now.
Jim said they have spent the time outside Panama visiting Costa Rica, taking cruises and returning to the United States to visit family in Northeast Ohio and Texas.
Jim said that right now, the country is locked down during the COVID-19 pandemic. Residents are confined to their homes most of the time under very restrictive rules, with fines as much as $100,000 for violations.
"The president is very aggressive here, which is definitely a good thing," said Jim.
So most of the time, the Whites stay home. It is Lisa who primarily works with Faith on her schoolwork, though Faith does a lot of the work on her own. Jim, meanwhile, spends time working out or working on the blog. In the evenings they hang out together, sometimes going behind their home just to get some time outside. All three Whites are also busy learning Spanish.
"We’ve been playing a lot of games," said Jim. "Other than the lockdown, we would spend a lot of time hiking. Faith does horseback riding and different fun activities like that. Walking around town. It’s just wonderful. It’s 75 degrees here every day, 365 days a year."
He said they have also taken a couple of trips to the beach.
Jim said he and his family expect they will remain in Panama until at least fall 2021 and then make a democratic decision as to whether they will stay.
"We all get a vote," he said.
But so far, they are enjoying the experience.
"I absolutely love it," said Jim. "It’s beautiful here. The colors are vivid. The people are so nice. We keep saying it’s like living in the 50s or 60s here where everyone says ‘Hi’ to each other. It’s just a beautiful community, a lot more laid back. We love it. The only downside would be family and friends being back home. So that makes it a little harder. If they were here, it would be a gimme for sure."
Faith said she is enjoying it.
"I like it here," she said. "I would stay here for years."
Reporter Jeff Saunders can be reached at 330-541-9431, firstname.lastname@example.org or @JeffSaunders_RP.